On Monday, October 16, several hundred thousand people heeded the call of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and assembled in the shadow of the Washington Monument to celebrate the Million Family March. The march was a sequel to Farrakhan’s 1995 Million Man March, which had ranked as the largest civil-rights march on the nation’s capital.
The Million Man March had proved that no public figure had his finger better placed on the pulse of black America than Louis Farrakhan. Using the rhetoric of the “endangered black male,” Farrakhan created a historic gathering that appeared to be the beginning of a new popular movement. The march also propelled Farrakhan into the spotlight of respectability, and although his credibility had taken a few hits since then, hopes for the Million Family March still ran high.
The Million Family March was designed to expand on the themes he first outlined five years earlier and to include women, who had been excluded during the first go-around. But last year’s event proved to be an altogether different kind of gathering. The Sunday before the Million Family March, Farrakhan prefaced his agenda on “Meet The Press,” telling Tim Russert that it was time to “put God back in the center of our marriage … and take responsibility as fathers to shepherd our families.”
The following Monday would bring thousands of black families to the Mall, but the march would also showcase an amazing collection of oddballs united under Farrakhan’s dubious banner. There was the record mogul Puff “Too Rich For You” Daddy; Jewel Howard Taylor, the wife of brutal Liberian dictator Charles Taylor; former Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry; and Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the ultra-conservative leader of the Unification Church, who helped bankroll the event.
Aided by the Rev. Moon, Farrakhan presided over a massive and lengthy group wedding and railed against pro-choicers, saying that the entire abortion dilemma could be solved if women didn’t give themselves over to loathsome men. “Sisters, your womb is sacred,” lectured Farrakhan. “You have the right to choose. Choose well the man you will give yourself to.”
The image of Farrakhan lecturing black women about chastity while officiating a mass wedding was a strikingly different picture from the incendiary minister black America had grown accustomed to. For almost two decades, Farrakhan has served as black people’s official middle finger to the Man. We knew that whatever our problems were with Farrakhan and the shaky foundation of his movement, we could always count on him to give American racism an uncompromising rebuke. That Farrakhan was an anti-Semite was irrelevant to us–we just couldn’t figure out why he kept singling out Jews. To paraphrase James Baldwin and Chris Rock, we had a beef with all quarters of white America and saw little point in categorizing.
But at the Million Family March, Farrakhan subverted much of his usual anti-white rhetoric in favor of Liebermanesque calls for a return of God to the lives of Americans. Gone was the fiery condemnation of white racism, and in its place was a bizarre sort of multiculturalism. At its core, the Million Family March turned out to be little more than a black version of the Promise Keepers that showcased one of the great chameleon acts of our time: Minister Louis Farrakhan morphing from the tireless voice of black angst into a vanilla social conservative.
That transformation did not happen in a vacuum, and the reasons behind it say as much about the change in the black community over the past decade as they do about Farrakhan. One thing is certain, though: While white America might celebrate Farrakhan’s evolution, black America has suffered a real loss.
One Million Men
In 1995, you didn’t need a deck of tarot cards to predict my attendance at the Million Man March. I was a student at what a friend calls “hysterically black” Howard University. Prone to long hours of pondering the works of Amiri Baraka, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Walter Rodney, I was young, nave, and a quasi-black nationalist–all of which placed me squarely in Farrakhan’s target audience.
But what no amount of occult mysticism could have predicted was that Farrakhan’s call for the occupation of the Mall would reach beyond self-styled militants like me and touch all quarters of black maledom. Farrakhan’s ability to, as rapper Chuck D says, “reach the bourgeois and rock the boulevard,” was the clearest evidence that in 1995, no black leader seemed more on the brink of something big than Louis Farrakhan.
The first hints of this broad appeal became evident in the summer of 1995, when Farrakhan barnstormed across the nation drawing thousands into men-only meetings in major cities. The one I attended in my native Baltimore was all fist-pumping, black-male ego-maintenance work that must have raised the testosterone levels of the city tenfold. As we entered the venue where Farrakhan was to hold forth, the Fruit of Islam cheered us on and shouted encouragement.
Inside, Farrakhan’s ministers buttered us up with sweet nothings that spoke to our sagging collective self-esteem. We were the “original man” they said, and the multitude of us was strong and beautiful. Moreover, they told us that Farrakhan was the only black leader in America who had the stones to speak to our pain. “You don’t need no leader,” said one minister, “who’s gonna be approaching the white man, shucking and jiving, itching and scratching, shuffling and stepping!” It was all rhetoric and demagoguery, of course. But it was also a chance to forget the cabbies who passed us by and the security guards who followed us through shopping malls, and to feel for a few hours like decorated war heroes.
The need for an ego boost was only matched by the diversity of the crowd. There were balding businessmen still dapper in ties and jackets from the 9-to-5 world; homeboys from West Baltimore in Champion hoodies and baggy Guess jeans; and college kids like me, nationalist and otherwise, who’d come for a shot of confidence from the one man who could make us feel like everything was gonna be all right.
During the months before the Million Man March, the anticipation at my university could have sent a small satellite into orbit. Nation of Islam speakers came to campus spreading the good word, and Howard’s student association declared its support. The night before the march, Howard students convened a rally that was roundly attended by men and women. The next day I connected with a few friends and three of my brothers and walked down to the Mall to witness the greatest post-civil rights gathering of black America to date.
Because black folks put a lot of stock in unity, the picture of hundreds of thousands of black men peacefully assembled was moving. We perceive ourselves as a perpetually fractured ethnic group and envy Asians, Jews, and white America. But on Oct. 16, 1995, no group looked more single-minded than black men. Public figures who in the past had had a rocky relationship with Farrakhan addressed the crowd–most notably Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz. Lawyers, ex-convicts, fathers, parolees, and students all swarmed the Mall. We took particular pleasure in defying all the stereotypes by not coming to the Mall and wrecking shop. For black men, it was like being a turkey all your life and getting a chance to fly for a day.
It was also Farrakhan’s opportunity to fly. For years he had been shunned by the establishment, black and white. He’d been rejected as a hate-filled anti-Semite and been slammed even by the nationalists for his suspected role in the death of Malcolm X. But Farrakhan would leave the march as the undisputed President of Afro-America. Even Jesse Jackson had been forced to play second fiddle to him, and the rest of the black moderates who had tried to steer clear of Farrakhan’s Million Man train were instead tied to the tracks.
Stand and Fail to Deliver
From the moment Farrakhan took the podium at the Million Man March, though, it was clear that he was incapable of taking advantage of this opportunity to marshal the energy of his movement to create a powerful new political machine. He proved himself a bumbler immediately, asserting that African slaves had first arrived in the colonies in 1555. (African slaves first arrived in the colonies in 1619.)
Farrakhan then launched into a rambling speech most notable for its dabbling in numerology. Noting the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials in the background, Farrakhan argued for their mystical significance: “Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president. Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd president, and 16 and 3 make 19 again,” said Farrakhan. “What is so deep about this number 19? When you have a 9, you have a womb that is pregnant. And when you have a 1 standing by the 9, it means that there’s something secret that has to be unfolded.”
The speech proved to be only a precursor. Three months after the Million Man March, Farrakhan launched his “World Friendship Tour.” Touted as a means for Farrakhan to take his message of atonement worldwide, the trip did little more than unite white conservatives and black intellectuals in condemnation of the tour. At the time Farrakhan visited Sudan, the country was under siege internationally for allowing its Muslim citizens to raid and enslave the country’s black non-Muslim population. But Farrakhan came to Sudan and dismissed all charges of slavery and praised the “wise Islamic leadership” of dictator Hassan al-Turabi.
In Nigeria, Farrakhan compared notes with then-Nigerian big man Sani Abacha. The Muslim dictator had recently voided elections and brutally suppressed all opposition, jailing dissidents and hanging internationally renowned author Ken Saro-Wiwa. But when Farrakhan came to Nigeria, he reportedly said to Abacha, “They said you hanged one man. So what?”
The trip wasn’t the only sign that Farrakhan’s new attempts at respectability were, at best, conflicted and at worst, simply insincere. In August of 1996, in light of Farrakhan’s new stature stemming from the Million Man March, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ)–never known as a hotbed of black militants–took the extremely bold step of inviting Farrakhan to address the group at their convention in Nashville. If NABJ expected praise from Farrakhan for giving a forum to the most despised black man in America, they were in for a rude awakening.
Farrakhan laid into the group with a fury that he usually reserved for the Anti-Defamation League. “White folks did not hire you to really represent what black people are thinking, and you don’t really tell them what you think because you are too afraid,” said Farrakhan according to the Chicago Tribune. “A scared-to-death Negro is a slave, you slave writers.”
It was vintage Farrakhan, and everything he had managed to keep under wraps at the recent October march. A few of the journalists in the room applauded Farrakhan’s comments, but many more were offended at how their guest speaker had so rudely wiped his muddy wingtips on their carpet. Farrakhan’s verbal thrashing was to some extent true, but it did little to help his relationship with black journalists, and it raised questions about the sincerity of his attempts at inclusiveness.
Of course, Farrakhan’s behavior really shouldn’t have come as any surprise. He has long been a bundle of contradictions, as has the Nation of Islam itself. Contrary to its image as an independent organization, its members are virtually brainwashed to follow their leader and his lieutenants through hellfire. Despite their militant talk, rarely do these self-styled defenders of black people raise arms against their alleged oppressors. They are better known for acts of brutality against their own. Malcolm X’s assassination is the best-known example of Nation of Islam “justice,” but in 1973, for instance, members of the Nation also stormed the home of a Muslim rival and murdered seven members of the group.
A few months before the Million Man March, the Nation’s business entities were investigated by the Chicago Tribune. The result was a damning series of articles that detailed a failed security operation, a clinic hawking a charlatan’s cure for AIDS, and a trail of debt and unpaid black employees. The stories revealed that much of Farrakhan’s talk of black economic self-empowerment was just that–talk–and that the organization that preached strict moral values was corrupt at the core.
Deep down, we’ve always known that Farrakhan was more style than substance, more opportunist than organizer. Yet despite these conflicting pictures, Farrakhan has maintained a unique hold on the black imagination–particularly in men–because of his unique ability to give voice to the unspoken emotions of large swaths of black America. The pleasure we took from Farrakhan’s defiance has long allowed us to disregard many of his considerable shortcomings. But the desire for that defiance has slowly seeped out of the black community and, without it, Farrakhan’s shortcomings have become impossible to ignore.
Image is Everything
For decades, Farrakhan was able to capitalize on the long-gloomy prospects for black men and on their failure to succeed in the white man’s America. Historically, the Nation has culled much of its membership not only from the poor, but also from Afro-America’s untouchables–the pimps, prostitutes, and pushers. The sect’s willingness to work with the black poor has given Farrakhan legitimacy among people that the NAACP has seemingly forgotten. In return, they have imbued him with a power few other black leaders could wield: the power to strike fear in the hearts of white people.
By championing those with nothing to lose, Farrakhan represented the unspoken threat of an ignored poor black America: the riots, violence, and mayhem of the late 1960s. With his disciplined troops in bow ties and fedoras, Farrakhan spoke to the collective emasculation felt by black men while hinting at what could happen if that rage was harnessed into something organized. His overt defiance of white authority also provided vicarious satisfaction for every repressed African American who wanted to tell white people to fuck off but couldn’t afford to.
Consequently, Farrakhan’s appeal has stretched beyond the public housing projects and deep into the heart of black America, even among those who don’t necessarily agree with his politics or his anti-Semitism. Farrakhan has also cultivated an image as the one black leader who is not a puppet. While the traditionalists say, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” Farrakhan said, “If you can’t beat ’em, then the hell with ’em.”
It’s an important distinction, because it is widely believed among African Americans that our leadership is in bed with the enemy. The vast majority of mainstream black leadership–the Urban League, the NAACP, SCLC–traces its lineage to the integrationists of yesteryear. Clearly, those integrationists won some important civil rights victories, but inherent to integration is the idea that if black people don’t become a part of white America, we are finished. Understandably, many African Americans are uneasy about a brain trust whose strategy–and financing–essentially begins and ends with a dependency on white people, many of whom have historically never liked us much.
Whereas the NAACP and most of traditional black leadership has been funded by the benevolence of white liberals, the Nation of Islam–Moammar al-Quadafi aside–is funded by its own devices. That includes numerous business entities that stretch across the country, such as bakeries, restaurants, a national weekly newspaper, and private security firms. For African Americans, Farrakhan’s financial empire has been proof–or at least the illusion of proof–that the dream of true economic independence can be achieved on our own.
Yet over the past decade, a very real change has occurred in black America, which even by 1995 had gone a long way towards lessening the appeal of Farrakhan’s traditional rhetoric.
According to the Census Bureau, in 1998, poverty was at its lowest level ever for African Americans. Just between 1998 and 1999, the number of poor African Americans dropped by 700,000. In 1997, the African-American median income reached an all-time high, and nearly one-third of African-American families reported incomes of $50,000 or more. Black entrepreneur Robert Johnson just announced he was selling his Black Entertainment Television for $3 billion–a far vaster sum than anything the Nation of Islam ever conjured up.
Other forces have conspired to undermine the Nation of Islam’s attractiveness. In 1970, barely half of all black Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 had finished four years of high school. Today, almost 90 percent have–a number almost equal to that of whites. And while in 1970, Farrakhan would have found barely half a million potential recruits in college, by the year of the Million Man March, there were upwards of 1.4 million black college students across the country.
Farrakhan’s rhetoric might have held some appeal for those left behind–specifically the poor single mother in the inner city–except that welfare reform has co-opted his message of self-reliance and economic independence. Thousands of poor black women have been forced into economic independence–whether they like it or not. With jobs aplenty, the booming economy has also defused some of the racial tension between blacks and whites at the bottom of the economic scale where Farrakhan’s message has traditionally held the most appeal.
In his quest to keep the Nation viable through such radical social change, Farrakhan has had to diversify the Nation’s membership. As a result, rather than public housing complexes and prisons, colleges are now perhaps Farrakhan’s most fertile recruiting grounds. He has also attempted to modulate his tone to establish legitimacy among orthodox Muslims who consider part of the Nation’s doctrine heresy. (The Nation’s creation mythology claims that white people were created by a mad black scientist named Yakub.) And Farrakhan has toned down some of his anti-whitey rhetoric to appeal to the growing black middle class, which, happily or not, is coexisting with and even prospering among whites.
The Million Man March initially suggested that in his twilight years, Farrakhan was following in the footsteps of Malcolm X and moving away from blind condemnations of whites to a more complex political analysis that might turn the Nation into a formidable black political organization. But five years later, the Million Family March proved that where Malcolm’s ideological turn brought him to Pan-Africanism and even flirtations with socialism, Farrakhan’s evolution has brought him to the Moonies.
Million Family Milieu
Farrakhan’s social conservatism isn’t really new. At the core of the Million Man March was a muted endorsement of patriarchy and a blame-the-victim mentality that told black men to atone, as opposed to demanding that America atone to black people. Black radicals, and the black community at large, always excused Farrakhan’s conservatism in exchange for his unique willingness to consistently flip off white America.
Despite Farrakhan’s historical defiance of white America and polite black America, though, clearly there is also a part of him that craves its acceptance. For instance, when Joe Lieberman hinted at a possible meeting with Farrakhan, his remarks were covered thoroughly in The Final Call, the Nation’s official mouthpiece. According to Arthur Magida, author of Prophet of Rage: A Life of Louis Farrakhan and His Nation, such a meeting would have been high on Farrakhan’s wish list.
That craving for acceptance seems to have grown since Farrakhan’s recent bout of prostate cancer, which has him looking towards his place in the history books. It also helps explain his recent makeover. Ever the opportunist, when pissing off white people stopped paying dividends for Farrakhan, he changed his message.
Rather than attacking the Man these days, Farrakhan saves much of his invective for his own people, blaming black women for choosing men who ain’t right with God; he attacks black men for not being proper heads of the household. These days you could tweak a typical Farrakhan speech for its color references and it would sound just as natural coming from the likes of William Bennett.
Much to my surprise, though, Farrakhan has found a receptive audience, as this fall’s Million Family March demonstrated. The march was “a major decline from what [Farrakhan] was able to pull off five years ago,” says Magida. “But even with that in mind, the turnout was still reasonably impressive. No other black leader could have issued a call for the Million Man March, and even five years later, outside of Farrakhan, there still isn’t one that could get 40,000 to 50,000 people on the Mall.”
The Million Family March, however strange its bedfellows, proved once again that Farrakhan does have his ear to the ground of black America. As his traditional power base has slipped away, he seems to have capitalized on the unappreciated fact that the black community is not necessarily more liberal than the white one–especially as it gets richer. A lot of blacks would be Republicans if the party weren’t seen as inherently racist. Farrakhan seems to be offering conservative blacks a palatable alternative to the Christian Coalition.
I suspect another reason for Farrakhan’s continued appeal is that despite this state of African-American abundance, there is still a widespread sense that black America has lost its semblance of community. In the eyes of many African Americans, there are still too many unwed mothers, too many grandmothers raising kids, and too many black kids who only go to church for funerals.
Farrakhan has found a cause in black America’s nostalgia. Indeed, his orchestration of a black mass wedding may have been more brilliant than he’s been given credit for. Consider that in 1960, 79 percent of black men between the age of 30 and 34 were married. By 1994, the percentage had dropped to 33. Meanwhile, the number of black women between 15 and 44 who have never been married has skyrocketed to 56 percent from 28 percent over the same period. Those figures make the mass wedding an especially potent symbol.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with preaching the value of marriage and family, except that it isn’t especially unique. Black America doesn’t really need Farrakhan to condemn it for moral failings; white America has been doing that quite well for years. More importantly, Farrakhan’s conversion from black radical to social conservative has rendered him ordinary.
It’s a sad turn of events, because there is still a need for someone like the old Farrakhan–an impolite African-American leader who makes white people uncomfortable, gets under their skin by telling unpleasant truths, and refuses to let them ignore the effects of their racism. In spite of all the gains African Americans have made in the past few decades, systemic racism is still waging war on the black community, even if black people choose not to see it. Nowhere is this more evident than in the criminal justice arena.
During George W. Bush’s crusade to the White House, Bush was able to boast of his record of executing people in the state of Texas. Despite the fact that the death penalty’s application is fraught with race, Bush’s flippant remarks during the presidential debate went largely unchallenged by the country’s black leadership. Farrakhan was silent on the issue–even as his own state, Illinois, was proving to be a breeding ground for errors in capital punishment cases, and it eventually rejected the whole procedure.
Ditto on the drug war. A recent study by Human Rights Watch found that blacks made up 62 percent of the nation’s drug offenders. The study estimated that in the state of Illinois, for every white person that goes to prison on a drug conviction, 57 African Americans go first. In Alabama, because of the nexus between criminal justice and voting rights, nearly one third of all black males can’t vote.
Criminal justice is one the last vestiges of the sort of overt racism that Nation of Islam leaders have always railed against. But with Farrakhan busy kowtowing to Lieberman, there is no longer a national figure of any prominence who can confront those issues and give voice to the still-simmering rage of black men.
Without someone like Farrakhan on the fringes willing to fight power with power, even moderate black leaders may find themselves handicapped. Like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X before him, Farrakhan’s mere presence on the political scene gave leaders like Jesse Jackson or Julian Bond a stronger bargaining position: Deal with us or you’ll have Farrakhan to reckon with, was often their implicit message. Now, though, the threat of unleashing Farrakhan and his Moonie-esque minions isn’t likely to leave many on Capitol Hill shaking in their boots.
Farrakhan’s charisma is clearly still intact, as demonstrated by his ability to draw tens of thousands of people to the Mall, but I wonder, to what end? When his constituents were a small but potent group of angry black men with nothing to lose, Farrakhan provided a formidable black counterweight to white supremacy. But now, Farrakhan looks as harmless as, well, Rev. Moon. His group may have more followers this way, but the new Nation of Islam is an irrelevant Nation of Islam.
Even conceding his faults, for those of us who found dignity in his defiant stance, Farrakhan’s metamorphosis into a black Jerry Falwell is regrettable. Ultimately it means the death of black America’s last angry man.
|Ta-Nehisi Coates writes frequently on race and African-American cultural issues.|
|Ta-Nehisi Coates writes frequently on race and African-American cultural issues.|